Barnaby Joyce is the nation’s most popular National Party politician by a country mile.
He has earned that status by voting against the Coalition (i.e. the Liberal Party) a total of 21 times during his three years as a senator and putting loyalty to his constituents in rural and regional Queensland above loyalty to the Coalition leadership.
His votes against the Coalition have boosted his electoral standing way beyond rusted-on Nationals and, at the same time, exposed the abject crawlers in his own party who have spent their political lives staying in lock step with John Howard, then Brendan Nelson and now Malcolm Turnbull.
In the closing days of Federal Parliament last week, National senators broke ranks with the Coalition leadership on two occasions — to vote against tax breaks for new carbon sink forests and against the Rudd Government’s seizure of the $2 billion telecommunications fund for Labor’s infrastructure plans.
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The fund was a concession by Howard to the Nationals to secure the full privatisation of Telstra and had become a touchstone of the “success” of Lib-Nat cooperation. That’s now been buried by Turnbull’s “big smoke” Liberals.
With his troops in disarray, Turnbull held an urgent meeting with Joyce at week’s end to offer him a place in the shadow Cabinet. He made a similar offer in September when Joyce became the Nationals leader in the Senate.
The former accountant and sheep farmer refused the offer both times, saying that his job was to review government legislation in the upper house, clearly inferring that he didn’t want his independence impaired by joining the leadership team.
While Joyce is on the outside of the tent with a watering can in his hand, he remains a destabilising influence on the Nationals and the Coalition itself. The ideal solution is for him to take a lower house seat at a by-election next year and move into the leadership currently occupied by the helplessly unimpressive Warren Truss.
But 60-year-old Truss seems blissfully content to hold onto his Queensland electorate of Wide Bay, which he has occupied for the past 18 years, and improve the size of his superannuation. Another seat which Joyce could capture at a canter is Maranoa, held by another veteran, Bruce Scott, but he isn’t going anywhere voluntarily, either.
The trouble for Truss and Scott is that the Nationals, particularly in Queensland, are chasing a political identity, renovating their policies, rediscovering their bush constituency and looking for leaders who will aggressively pursue an agenda for rural and regional Australians.
Barnaby Joyce is their man and they want him as their leader. The Nationals are at a crossroads: they can rescue the existing organisation by putting Joyce in the leadership; however, if they decide to dump him because of “disloyalty”, he will go off and form a breakaway organisation, taking most of the rank and file with him.